The Town of Watertown does not allow short-term rentals, such as can be found on Airbnb or one of several other similar websites, but when you look up Watertown those websites dozens or even hundreds of potential rentals pop up on the map.
Watertown officials are trying to figure out how to handle such rentals and, whether they are banned or allowed with certain conditions, the policy will need to be enforced. Wednesday night, the Department of Community Development and Planning held the first community forum to start diving into the complex issue.
Town Council President Mark Sideris said that he believes the status quo is not working.
“We have an issue we need to address and we can’t say we don’t want to do anything. It is going on now,” Sideris said.
Exactly how many properties in Watertown are listing on Airbnb and other sites is not clear. Some searched and found 25, 40, 50, 100 or even 200.
Assistant Town Manager and Director of Community Development and Planning Magoon said that Airbnb and some other short-term rental companies have said they would help communities regulate these units. Resident David Stokes said if they want to help regulate the industry, they could provide Town officials with the exact number and locations of the short-term rentals.
Whatever is decided – a ban or regulations – enforcing the rules will cost the town money, Sideris said. Councilor Angeline Kounelis said the Town’s Zoning Enforcement staff of two cannot enforce all the regulations on the books as it is, and this could greatly increase their work load.
Resident Russ Arico said he does not want to see people running short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods for a number of reasons, including because neighbors won’t know who the people who are renting them. He suggests that if the town has a large fine for running an Airbnb, and enforces it, people will stop running them.
Lydia Seif said she has seen short-term rentals in her neighborhood and she would like to see a limit on the number of these rentals in town, and how many in each area.
“Otherwise whole streets can go (short-term rental),” Seif said.
Seif added that before an ordinance is created, she would like to have the town keep a list of where the short-term rentals are located. Magoon said that would be hard because there is no form or process right now.
Resident Elodia Thomas said she has heard that neighborhoods in New Orleans have been “destroyed” by speculators buying up properties to use as short-term rentals. She also worries about the loss of affordable housing.
“We are talking about what we should do about affordable housing in our community out of one side of our mouth, and yet we have a hundred Airbnbs operating at all different level,” Thomas said.
Melissa SantucciRozzi, the chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said that she believes some properties or units do not lend themselves to being a short-term rental, such as half of a two-family home.
Pros, Cons and More
While many at the meeting said they oppose having Airbnb’s, almost all had stayed at one in other areas of the country or the world. Councilor Vincent Piccirilli noted that while New York City and San Diego prohibit short-term rentals, he has stayed in such places in both cities recently.
Magoon said that having short-term rentals available locally could help residents who don’t have room for family or other visitors to stay and want an option that is less costly than hotels. He added that they are used by people in the area for extended time for business, to visit children who attend college in the area or because loved ones are being treated at hospitals in the region. Short-term rentals also provide income for property owners, Magoon said.
Renting properties on these sites can be lucrative, said David Fagan, who had been renting his property in Watertown on Airbnb until the town told him to stop.
“All said, after fees and costs, I got double what I would have gotten renting it long term,” said Fagan, who said he could charge $180-$220 a night for a two-bedroom unit in the high-season.
While many people listing on Airbnb are individual homeowners wanting to rent a room or their home while they are away, others are renting out their second home or, in some instances, companies buy up entire apartment buildings and rent out all the units on a short-term basis.
Opponents also point to the fact that having housing rented on the short term reduces the rental stock in the area and also limits affordable housing, Magoon said.
There are also concerns about the lack of regulation on the places being rented, including lack of smoke alarms or turning basements without windows into rentals, Magoon said.
Types of Regulations
Watertown first started dealing with Airbnbs within the last year when Town officials received complaints about short-term rentals in town, Magoon said.
Since they are not allowed under the Town’s Zoning Ordinance, the Town’s Planning Staff tried to enforce it using what they believed was the closest regulation to what was going on: an accessory use of a dwelling unit that is owner occupied, planning for use as lodging of not more than two rooms of lodging, without separate kitchen facilities for not more than two lodgers.
“Maybe that specific situation fits some of those, but obviously does not fit the breadth of issues facing the (short-term rental) industry,” Magoon said.
Letters were sent to the people renting their property in the short term telling them to stop because they were violating the town’s Zoning Ordinance. One person appealed saying that the town should not be regulating how they use their property, but the Zoning Board of Appeals ruled against them saying that it should be regulated, Magoon said.
A second person tried to comply under the provisions of the regulation, Magoon said, but that was a non-starter, too.
“The Planning Board said that really doesn’t fit. We don’t have anything in the Zoning Ordinance for this complicated and broad issue,” Magoon said.
The Planning Board asked the Planning Department staff to create a regulation for short-term rentals, Magoon said.
Communities surrounding Watertown are also looking at the issue, including Boston, Belmont, Cambridge and Newton. Boston is looking at limiting the number of days a property can be rented in the as short-term to 90 days, but Magoon noted that some of the businesses that own whole buildings said it would still be financially beneficial to rent it for that time and then leave the units empty the rest of the time.
The State Legislature is also tackling the issue. Magoon said that one such proposal, House Bill 3454, would have a separate situation for owner-occupied situations where properties are rented only a small number of days vs. non-owner occupied where a unit is rented for many days.
The bill would also allow communities to charge an excise tax (with half the tax required to go toward affordable housing), and would give communities the ability to restrict the number of short-term rentals in town or the number of days that a unit is rented. Other requirements would be annual safety inspections of the units and require owners to have insurance.
Magoon said there are other issues to consider, such as where short-term rentals will be allowed, considerations for parking, developing a registration or permitting process and making sure that units meet the fire and housing codes. Also, if a renter provides breakfast or other meals, the Town’s Health Department will have to get involved, Magoon said.
The Planning Department staff will be coming up with a draft regulation, Magoon said, and they will hold another public meeting to discuss the proposal. A change in the Zoning Ordinance would need the approval of both the Planning Board and the Town Council.